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"The division," says Gibbs, "looks a lot like it used to."
IT'S HARD to say exactly when these rivalries were born. Perhaps it was the moment Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik laid out Giants running back Frank Gifford in 1960. Or perhaps they were the result of all of those collisions in the Violent World of Sam Huff, the Hall of Fame linebacker for the Giants and the Redskins. Joe Theismann, the former Redskins quarterback, credits Washington coach George Allen for adding heat during the '70s, especially to the Skins' rivalry with Dallas. "He always had this smile on his face during Cowboys week," says Theismann. "He'd say, 'Let's punch 'em in the mouth. We want street fights, they want finesse. They don't want to get their shiny uniforms dirty. Their receivers like to stand with their hands on their hips.' He used it all."
If Allen was stirring things up in Washington, the former Cowboys president and general manager Tex Schramm was his team's catalyst. On game days Schramm could sometimes be heard in the press box, shouting at the officials. He was a constant presence in the offices of coach Tom Landry and personnel director Gil Brandt. "If you wanted to be around one of the most highly competitive people in the world, Tex was it," says Brandt, now an analyst for NFL.com. "Tex made daily rounds between Tom's office and my office. He wasn't making sure we were one step ahead of everyone else. He was making sure we were yards ahead of everyone else."
That attitude filtered down to the Cowboys' locker room. "As Tom Landry used to say, 'You can get away with [certain behavior] and play in the National Football League, but you can't get away with that and be a Dallas Cowboy,'" says former Dallas running back Calvin Hill. "It planted a seed in me. If you were a Dallas Cowboy, you had to be exceptional." And for that, the rest of league hated them.
By the 1980s, with Landry and Gibbs in place, Bill Parcells coaching the Giants and Dick Vermeil and, later, Buddy Ryan in Philadelphia, the rivalries were well established—and all but interchangeable. In some cases personal style stoked the flames. In all cases, dominating the line of scrimmage was the means of survival.
"We would play Washington, and they'd call it the body-bag game," says former Giants linebacker Carl Banks. "Then we'd play Philly, and they'd call that the body-bag game. We knew that if we didn't go out and get them, they'd get us. No one was left standing with a full roster when the game was over."
Theismann likes to break down the NFC teams by fan base, giving highest marks—naturally—to the Redskins for the almost collegiate atmosphere at home games. He's less gushing about the other three. The Cowboys: "Their fans treat the games like a social outing. 'Hmm, what jersey am I going to wear...the blue one, the white one or the pink one?'" The Giants: "Loud and almost obnoxious. They would harass you. You wanted to smile, but you couldn't let them see that. I hated that place." The Eagles: "Downright cruel. Any stadium that had a jail in it, that says all you need to know."
THEISMANN SAYS a day rarely goes by that a stranger doesn't ask him how his leg is holding up. Two years after winning the league's Most Valuable Player award in 1983, he was dropping back to pass against the Giants in a Monday Night Football game when the force of a Lawrence Taylor tackle snapped the bones in his right leg. His fractured tibia protruded through his sock. Few plays have so vividly captured the toughness of the NFC East.
For 20 years Theismann refused to watch the tape. Then, in 2005, he sat down with a New York Times reporter to see it for the first time. "The first thing that went through my mind was, My God, you can hear the break," he said. "The second thing was, Thank God we didn't have the camera angles we have today."
Theismann sees Taylor once a year, usually at a golf tournament in Lake Tahoe, but the injury is a topic they've broached only once, in 1986, a year after the incident. Theismann had retired; Taylor was still playing. "LT, we're going to be connected for the rest of our lives through my injury," Theismann says he told Taylor. "We know how it affected my life. It ended my career. Did it affect you? And he says, 'Joe, the one thing I learned that night was that no matter how great you are, it can be over in an instant. You can't take a play or one minute for granted.'"